Battle of the Espero Convoy

Battle of the Espero Convoy

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of the Espero Convoy
partof=the Mediterranean Theater of World War II

caption=HMS "Liverpool", Vice-Admiral Tovey's flagship.
date=June 28 1940
place=Mediterranean, southwest of Crete
result=Allied tactical victory
Two-thirds of the Italian reinforcements reached destination
Two Allied convoys from Malta postponed
combatant1=flagicon|United Kingdom United Kingdom
flagicon|Australia Australia
combatant2=flagicon|Italy|1861 Kingdom of Italy
commander1=flagicon|United Kingdom|naval Vice-Admiral John Tovey
commander2=flagicon|Italy|1861-state Captain Enrico BaroniKIA
strength1=5 cruisers
strength2=3 destroyers
casualties1=1 cruiser lightly damaged
casualties2=1 destroyer sunk
150–180 dead

The Battle of the Espero Convoy was one of the very first naval battles fought during World War II between vessels of the Italian Royal Navy ("Regia Marina") and vessels of the British Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy. The engagement took place southwest of Crete on June 28, 1940, when a force of seven cruisers and sixteen destroyers escorting three Allied convoys headed for Alexandria spotted a smaller Axis convoy. The Axis convoy consisted of three destroyers bound for Tobruk from Taranto.


On 10 June 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and France. The Italian High Command ("Commando Supremo"), foreseeing a British Army push into Cirenaica led by armoured forces, decided that an antitank unit should be deployed at Tobruk as soon as possible. The unit comprised ten antitank guns, one-hundred-and-twenty tons of ammunition, and one-hundred-and-sixty-two servicemen.

The two forces

The Italians chose three destroyers of the "Turbine" class to deliver the antitank unit. These vessels were chosen due to their high speed and loading capabilities. The destroyers chosen were the "Espero" (flagship), the "Zeffiro" and the "Ostro". This class of warships could reach 36 knots if needed. The commander of the Italian squadron was Captain Enrico Baroni.

At the same time, three Allied convoys (two from Malta and the other from Greece) were heading towards Alexandria under the escort of seven cruisers (two light cruisers, HMS "Capetown", HMS "Caledon", the other five from the 7th Squadron: HMS "Liverpool", HMS "Orion", HMAS "Sydney", HMS "Gloucester" and HMS "Neptune") and sixteen destroyers. All twenty-three vessels were under the command of Vice-Admiral John Tovey. Reconnaissance planes from Alexandria and Malta also gave support to the Allied operation. [Greene & Massignani, pp. 63–65.] [ De la Sierra, pp. 58–63.]

The engagement

The Italian destroyers were spotted at noon by two Sunderland flying-boats some 50 miles west of Zante island. [Greene & Massignani, pp. 63. ] [ De la Sierra, pp. 58.] They were at striking range of Tovey’s 7th Squadron, so the Vice-Admiral ordered the cruisers to intercept the enemy force with a two wings formation. At 18:30, the first 6” salvoes from the five Allied cruisers began to fall on the surprised Italian convoy from a distance of 16,000 meters. Baroni, realizing that despite the best speed of his ships they were hopelessly outgunned, attempted to cover the remaining destroyers using smokescreens and faced his formidable adversaries with evasive maneuvers. Unable to escape this force, he elected to sacrifice his ship, the "Espero", to save the others. [Miller, "War at Sea", pg. 113] While Commander Baroni remained behind in his flagship to fight an unequal battle, the "Zeffiro " and "Ostro" headed safely to the southwest at full speed.

It was not until 19:20 that the first British broadside struck home, when the range had closed to 12,800 meters. By this time, Tovey had given up the chase of the other two destroyers. The 7th Squadron spent about 5,000 rounds before the "Espero" was sent to the bottom, after two hours and ten minutes of fierce fighting. A single Italian 4.7" shell hit the "Liverpool", but caused little damage. The battle resulted in such a shortage of ammunition that the planned Malta convoys were suspended for two weeks. [Green & Massignani, page 65.] HMAS "Sydney" rescued 47 men from the Italian destroyer, and six others were later found alive by an Italian submarine almost twenty-days later. [De la Sierra, page 62.] Captain Baroni was lost with his ship, and was posthumously awarded the "Medaglia d´oro al valor militare". "Zeffiro" and "Ostro" both reached Bengasi the next day and arrived at Tobruk shortly after. Two-thirds of the convoy had been saved.


There were two main lessons learned by both sides after this battle. For the Allies, the lesson was that a daylight naval action at long range was unlikely to be decisive when the enemy units outmatched one's own speed. For the Italians, it was a grim forecast about the importance of well-coordinated air surveillance. Had Italian aircraft spotted the Allied cruisers before they reached the firing line, the three destroyers would have escaped unscathed. [Greene & Massignani, page 65.]



*Greene, Jack & Massignani, Alessandro: "The Naval War in the Mediterranean, 1940–1943", Chatam Publishing, London, 1998. ISBN 1861760574.
*Miller, Nathan: "War at Sea: A Naval History of World War II", Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995. ISBN 0-19-511038-2 (Pbk.).
*De la Sierra, Luis: "La Guerra Naval en el Mediterráneo", Editorial Juventud, Barcelona, 1976.
ISBN 84-261-0264-6. (in Spanish)

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